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Let’s Win Just to Piss Off George Vecsey

The Times’ baseball preview brought along a column by George Vecsey [1] that couldn’t have been better calibrated to infuriate Mets fans.

Vecsey writes that we are conditioned to accept a magical season every generation or so, but know nothing of the sort is in the cards for 2011. “Absolutely not this year,” as he adds for emphasis.

He goes on to suggest as a positive that our team will continue to exist since there’s no relegation in the National League, though he imagines the possibilities of the Mets and Pirates fighting it out in September to avoid taking up residence in the International League.

After some blather about the Yankees, it’s back to us:

The Mets, who open Friday night in Florida, have truly hit the skids, as the owners seek a minority partner. They are saddled with the salaries of the departed Luis Castillo and Ollie Perez, and the injured and expensive Johan Santana, Frankie Rodriguez and Carlos Beltran, and also have a long investment in Jose Reyes, who may never be more than occasionally exciting. Even with Ike Davis, David Wright, Josh Thole and Angel Pagan, the Mets could be a last-place team under Terry Collins, who sounds like a competent baseball lifer.

Then it’s on to a second mention of Bernie Madoff, annnnnd scene.

To the extent that columns are supposed to provoke a reaction, this one worked, because by the time I finished it my blood was pretty much at full boil. But there are columns that provoke with unwelcome truths, that work because they afflict the comfortable — and then there are columns that provoke because they’re clinically brain-dead, and you’re embarrassed to find them in the New York Times. (Insult to injury: This is the same George Vecsey who wrote the marvelous Joy in Mudville once upon a time, a book I read more times than I could count as a Mets-obsessed kid.)

Where to begin? The Mets do not have a long investment in Jose Reyes — that’s just flat-out wrong. Reyes is up at the end of the season, as is Carlos Beltran. (I’ll give Vecsey Santana, and he could have made more of Frankie Rodriguez’s nightmare option for 2012, AKA the Omar Special.) Yes, the Mets are saddled with money owed to Castillo and Perez — but unlike the last two seasons, they have accepted that those are sunk costs, and will at least derive some value out of formerly wasted roster spots. As for the team’s financial mess, I’ll choose to believe Sandy Alderson that the team can add payroll this summer if it needs to — though I doubt our new GM is privy to all that’s rotten in the House of Wilpon, I haven’t caught him lying to us yet. If anything, so far he seems to err on the side of truths another executive might varnish a bit more.

Moreover, Vecsey himself notes that last year he predicted fire-and-brimstone doom and the Mets won 79 games, which might have suggested a more rigorous testing of assumptions this time around. Judging by WAR, the Mets look to be a 79-to-85 win team. That’s not keep-October-free territory, but it’s not the stuff of relegation either. Could the 2011 Mets finish last? Sure. But if a few things break the Mets’ way and they make some smart moves, they could win 88 or 89 games, and then who knows?

It may be too much to ask George Vecsey to deal with WAR and other sabermetrics, but he ought to be capable of realizing that the Mets won 79 games last year despite starting the season with a horribly constructed roster that wasted playing time on the likes of Mike Jacobs, Alex Cora and Gary Matthews Jr., not to mention the black holes of Castillo and Perez on the roster. No, they don’t have Johan Santana for the first half of the year (and maybe more), but they have a full year of R.A. Dickey, two decent back-of-the-rotation bets in Chris Capuano and Chris Young, and reason for optimism with Jon Niese. It’s not crazy for them to expect a better year from Jason Bay, or to think Beltran may settle in as a right-fielder, or that Thole and Davis and Pagan will continue to perform well. Is it a lot to ask for all of those things to break right? Maybe — but it’s not impossible, or even that improbable. Moreover, as Vecsey himself notes, the Mets have a competent manager now, not to mention a front office that seems much more likely to make wise choices. Even without delving into advanced stats, all of that would suggest the Mets can expect to be about as good as they were last year, and might be better.

Ah, but what about Madoff? Well, what about him? Last time I checked he doesn’t play for the Mets. To suggest he nonetheless has some effect on the players — evoked poetically but not terribly convincingly as sulfurous fumes that still pollute the team — is to either warn that players’ paychecks will bounce, which would indeed probably have a deleterious effect on the on-field product, or to veer into psychobabble. Really, invoking the black cloud of Madoff is just the inverse of the Pollyanna column that rabbits on about leadership or intangibles or knowing how to win. (In other words, 90% of columns about Derek Jeter.) One may anger fans while the other puts a spring in their step, but they’re equally nonsensical.

Maybe I’ve gone Pollyanna myself, but I’m not that worried about my team. I’m really not. As Will Leitch wrote last week [2] in New York, the Mets were going to be retrenching financially this year (and maybe next) anyway, even without Madoff and Picard and all the rest. The time they spend doing that — which, again, they were most likely going to do anyway — is time for the current legal mess to sort itself out. Which will happen, one way or the other. When it does, the Mets may or may not be controlled by new owners, but they’ll still be a club in the baseball and media capital of the world, with a new stadium and a regional cable network as money generators. They will be immensely valuable and well-positioned to spend. Except in the fever dreams of George Vecsey, they aren’t going to be the Pittsburgh Pirates.

And in the meantime? I think my team is being run wisely. That should help ensure they’re in the best possible position once the retrenching is over. And if things should break right, and they somehow head into September with a wild card within reach? Well, then I’d like to see how the current braintrust deals with a little good news.